Every year at about this time most of us resolve that this year we are going to do things differently. We are going to lose weight, we are going to get more exercise, we are going to learn a foreign language, we are going to…. The aims involved almost always are desirable and chosen from a list of things that, no doubt, we really should do. All too often, these resolutions also are carryovers from the past year or, worse still, past years. As a result, we may ratchet up the ante, as it were, with a virtual carrot or stick, such as buying new clothes that we intend to be able to wear after carrying out our resolution or taking out an expensive gym membership.

This time around, my suggestion is to remove the pressure and adopt one or more low stress health resolution that may achieve some important goals indirectly. This way, success will come almost as a surprise even as benefits emerge from changes in habits.

Eat Breakfast Every Day
Over the years, a slew of studies have demonstrated a couple of points that need to be kept in mind. One is that the timing of meals can be as important as the contents of the meals.

Experiments have shown that with identical meals, calories eaten entirely at breakfast can lead to stable or reduced weight whereas the same number of calories eaten at night can lead to weight gain. Never skip breakfast. If you skip breakfast, your body will take this as a sign that you are “starving” and slow down your metabolism. There may be other unwanted effects in the brain. Substituting a cup of coffee and a sweet roll for breakfast is almost as bad as not eating that meal.

Another finding is that eating a relatively high protein breakfast with a significant number of calories tends to reduce the number of calories consumed at the next meal and even the propensity to snack throughout the day. Advice varies, but the argument from a number of researchers is that protein should make up 25–30 percent of the calories and fat should make up 35–40 percent of the calories with the remainder consisting of slow digesting carbohydrates. Many will recognize that this conforms to the diet proposed years ago by Barry Sears. Interestingly, research following subjects for one or two years has not validated the low-fat-is-best hypothesis. Instead, a diet consisting of 25 percent protein and the rest low glycemic index (from mixed carbohydrate and fat components) spontaneously leads to weight loss in many subjects who started the diet while overweight.

Morning Exercise and Sunshine
Today, many or even most families have both parents working. Schedules often make it hard to send the proper signals to the body by getting a bit of sun before lunch. Those who live in the northern latitudes also can attest that the sun rises quite late in the winter. Nevertheless, even a little bit of sun in the morning helps to keep the body’s internal clock working properly.

Light exposure and exercise go well together. Exercise burns calories, but the greatest benefit comes after the exercise has ended. If you walk briskly for a mere 30 minutes per day, you will increase your calorie burning for an entire 24 hour period. Adding a moderate amount of upper body exercise or weight lifting will improve your energy expenditure even more by adding calorie-burning lean muscle tissue to your body. For weight loss, plan on walking briskly for at least 30 minutes every day. This is best done either before or after breakfast. A walk early in the day while the body’s temperature is still rising will invigorate you for the rest of the day. Taking a short walk (10 to 15 minutes) in the afternoon or before supper similarly makes it more likely that your body will burn calories rather than store them. Finally, another time for a walk is after your last meal of the day. Walking after meals is a particularly good practice for diabetics and for those genetically prone to developing diabetes.

Choose Dietary Fats Wisely
A recent survey found that approximately 95 percent of all Americans consume too little omega-3 fatty acids (fish oils, flax seed oil and a small number of other sources) in relation to their total fatty acid intake. Instead, we eat mostly omega-6 fatty acids because, quite simply, these are cheap to derive from canola, corn, peanut, soy and other sources. Unfortunately, omega-6 fatty acids in excess promote inflammatory processes in the body.

Dietary saturated fats, after 60 years in the wilderness, no longer are under blanket condemnation by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or several other “official” bodies. Today, it increasingly is admitted that the evidence against, for instance, the egg, does not stand up and eggs, in fact, are good for you even in relatively large numbers per week. Similarly, the short-chain fatty acids in butter and other dairy products are good for the health of the gut and another fat from full fat dairy, palmitoleic acid, is associated with slightly lower adiposity, with higher high-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, lower triglyceride levels, a lower total cholesterol–HDL cholesterol ratio, lower C-reactive protein levels, and lower insulin resistance. Trans-palmitoleate also is associated with a substantially lower incidence of diabetes.

As with the consumption of full fat dairy in the form of cheese, milk and yoghurt (obviously, not lots of whipped cream with sugar!), the evidence supports that improving the ratio of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet may moderately improve weight and cardiovascular health.

Eat More Vegetables
Most readers automatically will think “eating more vegetables” means eating more fiber. This, however, is not the whole of the story by any means. Let’s take fiber first. Fiber slows down food consumption so that your body has a chance to signal that you have eaten enough. It adds bulk to the meal to give you a feeling of satisfaction at having eaten. It slows the increase in the blood sugar level that follows meals. Fiber carries waste products from the body and, especially if it comes from lightly cooked vegetables, it supplies important minerals and antioxidants. Try to vary your fiber sources. Avoid too much scratchy wheat bran, but add grains such as oats and barley and starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes and yams (without added sugar) to your menu.

Clinical studies that came out earlier this year now have added another dimension to the story. It turns out that the plant hormone abscisic acid is present and active in humans! Abscisic acid can be found in many fruits and vegetables. In one study, microgram amounts of abscisic acid in a fruit extract improved glucose tolerance and reduce insulinemia in both rats and humans! Another clinical study found that there is an impaired increase in abscisic acid in the blood in diabetes and gestational diabetes. The upshot of these studies is “eat more vegetables!”

Old Fashioned Versus Fast and Prepared Food
Most studies on food and health focus on the big three nutrients (carbohydrates, fats and protein), the glycemic index and various isolated food components. One novel approach that breaks this mold looks, instead, at the issue of food processing. Many foods that we think are either good or bad actually owe their effects to how they have been refined, manufactured and prepared. To give but one example, steel cut oats are excellent food, but instantized oats designed to become oatmeal with the mere addition of hot water become a high glycemic food akin to white bread or sugar. One Brazilian researcher writes that the issue is “ultra processing” and its impact on food.

This commentary distinguishes between three types of food and drink processing, and in turn three groups of foods and drinks, depending on the nature, extent and purpose of their processing. The first group are unprocessed (as defined here) or minimally processed foods. The second group are processed culinary or food industry ingredients. The third group are ultra-processed products—two examples of which are ready-to-eat eat breakfast cereals and burgers.

Today, at least 50 percent of all meals eaten by Americans are consumed outside the home with a good percentage being eaten in fast food restaurants. Good health depends, at least in part, on reducing the amount of ultra-processed food in the diet.

Conclusion Worthwhile resolutions do not need to be great or grand. With patience, small, practical changes can yield major improvements in health.

Endnotes

  1. Breakfast-skippers may over-eat to compensate for low dopamine levels. See Hoertel HA, Will MJ, Leidy HJ. A randomized crossover, pilot study examining the effects of a normal protein vs. high protein breakfast on food cravings and reward signals in overweight/obese “breakfast skipping”, late-adolescent girls. Nutr J. 2014 Aug 6;13:80.
  2. Larsen TM, Dalskov SM, van Baak M, Jebb SA, et al.; Diet, Obesity, and Genes (Diogenes) Project. Diets with high or low protein content and glycemic index for weight-loss maintenance. N Engl J Med. 2010 Nov 25;363(22):2102–13.
  3. Mozaffarian D, de Oliveira Otto MC, Lemaitre RN, Fretts AM, Hotamisligil G, Tsai MY, Siscovick DS, Nettleton JA. trans-Palmitoleic acid, other dairy fat biomarkers, and incident diabetes: the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA). Am J Clin Nutr. 2013 Apr;97(4):854–61.
  4. Magnone M, Ameri P, Salis A, Andraghetti G, et al. Microgram amounts of abscisic acid in fruit extracts improve glucose tolerance and reduce insulinemia in rats and in humans. FASEB J. 2015 Dec;29(12):4783–93.
  5. Ameri P, Bruzzone S, Mannino E, Sociali G, et al. Impaired increase of plasma abscisic Acid in response to oral glucose load in type 2 diabetes and in gestational diabetes. PLoS One. 2015 Feb 27;10(2):e0115992.
  6. Monteiro C. The big issue is ultra-processing. ‘Carbs’: The answer. [Commentary]/ World Nutrition February 2011;2(2):86–97.